Reality Video

By Ivan Gevirtz

created: Monday, November 27, 2006
updated: Wednesday, December 13, 2006

My 11 year old daughter, Samantha, loves the Internet.  She spends hours playing on Virtual Magic Kingdom -- "VMK" -- for 'tweens in the know.  VMK is one of Disney's online properties, and it allows players to walk their avatars around Disney's Magic Kingdom, and to interact with other people who are on the system.  The interaction is proscribed and heavily moderated, as it should be.  People are limited in what they can say, what words they can use, and given individual ratings based on any transgressions.  It's a neat system, and she loves it.  However, it can be very frustrating because the number of users is limited, as are the hours of operation.  So she'll have to "wait" online to get in to the system, sometimes for an hour or more.

Her friends have been telling her about another site called Club Penguin.  Club Penguin bills itself as "kid friendly chat" for the 'tween and teen crowd.  You get to be a penguin and flip around with others.  There are two levels of access control for their "safe chat" -- "Ultimate" and "Standard".  The ultimate level only allows children to interact using predefined statements.  Standard safe chat allows for more realistic chatting, relying on a word filter and the availability for moderation and reporting of abuse or bullying.

I don't believe that there is anything safe about "Standard safe chat".  First of all, if I were a bad guy, the perfect job for me would be a moderator for this site.  And I'd have time on my side, so if I were ever caught, or suspicion ever raised, it would be long after the damage were done.  Secondly, any security expert can explain the fallacy of black lists.  People always find the loopholes in such systems, and hormonal kids are highly motivated.  In addition, with names such as RabbitChick95, gender and age filters are meaningless.

But what's the *real* problem?  I'm not honestly concerned about my daughter interacting with other 11 year olds, bullies or not.  And I allow her to hang out with her one "he's not my Boy-Friend, he's just a boy who is my friend" friend, they even on their first outing ("It's not a date") together.  Rather, I'm worried about some pedophile pretending to be of her age group, and building up her trust over time, while slowly piecing together her info ("I'm so excited.  This weekend is my double Bass concert" --> only X, Y and Z schools list concerts this weekend).

How can I give her the freedom to make friends, while working on her communication skills, writing skills, typing, etc... without worrying about predators?

Reality Video

Video can be very annoying, especially to someone who wants the convenience and anonymity of typing.  However, seeing is believing, and video could be a powerful way to verify identity, constancy of identity, and relative age.  Children don't carry around drivers licenses, and I'm passionately against any kind of national ID system, especially for minors.  But I think 2 way live video can solve the identity veracity problem.  And it doesn't even need to reveal the users identity to each other.

There are a number of ways to implement this.  I don't believe video chat all the time is what users want (nor do I want my daughter having video capability behind a shut door!).  But, periodic, random or user invoked video identification could solve the problem.  It would be hard for a bad guy to get some young girl to briefly appear on camera and chat on his behalf.  It would be really quite hard to do this more than once, with the same girl.  And the chance of getting "found out" are pretty good, if the kids are taught to be suspicious and to reference previous chats when they go to the live video.

I haven't worked out all the exact details of this kind of system.  And I already see some barriers and ways to hack the system to some extent, especially if the evil person is a parent of a child of the target age.  However, it is a lot better than any other system I've heard of!